The Volcano Lover

Susan Sontag

The Volcano Lover is based on the history of the British diplomat, Sir William Hamilton, who served in Naples from 1764 to 1800. During this time, he lost his first wife and met his second, much younger wife. Lord Horatio Nelson, one of Britain’s best-known military heroes was sent to Naples in support of the local royals against the uprising of revolutionaries. After the French Revolution, Naples became a political hotspot and Hamilton, a hated figure due to Britain’s support of the king and queen of Naples.

The book is not an easy read; it takes the reader along the confusing paths of love, passion, feminism, collecting, volcanoes and the history of southern Italy during the 18th century. Although published nearly 30 years ago, this book still has a significant message for the modern reader.

Sir William Hamilton, fascinated by volcanoes and beautiful objects, loved his collections more than first wife . . . until she died (of course). On meeting the beautiful Emma, his equally high-ranked nephew’s ex, he fell head over heels for the uneducated, much younger commoner. Then entered the famous war hero, Lord Horatio Nelson, and the love triangle that would rock the aristocracy of Naples and Britain during the late 18th century. Nelson’s and Emma’s love was not mere infatuation, but the epitome of love that does not presuppose perfection. He lost an arm and an eye in battle and was shorter than she was. She, known as a great beauty throughout Europe, got excessively fat, but their love defied all social rules of the time.

To really discover the depth of meaning in this book, the reader should explore Sontag’s references to people, places, paintings, vases and events in detail. Every reference adds layer upon layer of meaning to the plot and Sontag’s interpretation of history.

Sontag uses the fable of Pygmalion to introduce and build on the themes of feminism and collecting. Pygmalion found the statue of a woman on the village square so beautiful that he wanted her alive at all costs. As king of Cyprus, he after all had ultimate power. Wanting to stay in control, he allowed her one sense only, that of smell. Delighted in her new freedom, she tried to preserve all her newly found scents. As she could not distinguish between good and bad, she wanted to hold on to all of them – even the smell of dog excrement.

Sir William Hamilton is the main character and main collector in the book, displaying an all-consuming passion for beautiful and valuable objects, books and historical artefacts. Collecting, the reader soon discovers, is not about aesthetics and conservation only; collecting has a dark side. The highly regarded diplomat stole from archaeological sites and bought rare books for next to nothing from desperate political prisoners, his erstwhile friends.

In the last chapter we hear the voice of Eleonora de Fonseca, a poet, political activist and a former friend of Sir William Hamilton. Eleonora, a brave aristocrat who divorced her abusive husband and took back her maiden name, was executed as a traitor in August 1799. Before her death she exposed the Sir William Hamilton in no uncertain terms:

Who was the esteemed Sir William Hamilton but an upper-class dilettante enjoying the many opportunities afforded in a poor and corrupt and interesting country to pilfer the art and make a living out of it and get himself known as a connoisseur. Did he ever have an original thought, or subject himself to the discipline of writing a poem, or discover or invent something useful to humanity, or burn with zeal for anything except his own pleasures and privileges annexed to his station? He knew to appreciate what the picturesque natives had left, in the way of art and ruins, lying on the ground.’

The Volcano Lover reminded me, working and living in several African countries during the last decade, to tread very softly in my guest country. This is what a good book does; it speaks across time, physical and cultural borders.

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